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Dao vs Katana: Comparing China’s and Japan’s Famous Swords

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: February 8, 2024
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

The dao and katana are famous swords from Asia, known for their powerful cutting power. Dao blades have been used in China for over 1,000 years and are a key part of East Asian sword making. 

The katana, used by the samurai, is now the world’s most popular sword. 

This article will examine the dao and katana, their design traits, history, and uses in battle. 

Dao Sword - Comparison
Dao Swords
Katana Sword - Comparison
Katana
Origin
Dao Swords
2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE China
Katana
14th/15th century CE Japan
Use
Dao Swords
Warfare, Ceremonial, Slashing, Horseback, Infantry
Katana
Ceremonial, Warfare, Slashing, Infantry
Average Length
Dao Swords
23.6 – 59 inches (60 – 150 cm)
Katana
33.4 – 43 inches (85 – 109 cm)
Weight
Dao Swords
1.7 – 3.3 lbs (0.8 to 1.5 kg)
Katana
2.4 to 2.9 lbs (1.1 to 1.3 kg)
Blade Type
Dao Swords
Single Edge, Straight, Curved, Broad, Slim
Katana
Single Edge, Curved
Handle
Dao Swords
One-Handed, Two-Handed, Chinese Cord Wrap
Katana
Two-Handed, Japanese Cord Wrap
Construction
Dao Swords
High-Carbon Steel
Katana
High-Carbon Steel

Terms, Characteristics, and Design Differences

Dao and Katana sword Differences
The differences between the Japanese katana (center) and the different types of dao swords (all around) – Credits: Diatrex

Dao is a Chinese term for any single-edged blade, including knives. In martial arts or the military, it means a single-edged sword used as a sidearm or main weapon, like a cavalry sword or broadsword. 

Katana is a Japanese word for any blade that today specifically means the single-edged blade used by the samurai since the late Muromachi Period. It was worn with the edge facing up, often called a uchi-gatana.

The Japanese katana is one kind of sword in Japan’s collection. The Chinese dao refers to a group of swords. These range from straight, single-edged blades and curved sabers with slim or broad blades to large two-handed dao similar to the katana.

Blade

Main Bamboo Koshirae Tamahagane Katana Clay Tempered Sword with scabbard
The high-quality “Bamboo Koshirae Tamahagane Katana” hand forged with traditional methods (Check Product)

The Chinese dao and Japanese katana have blades made of high-carbon steel. The katana is crafted from tamahagane, made from iron sand, and forged into a blade. 

While both swords have a single sharp edge, the dao swords do vary. Some have straight blades, like the tang dao, or they can have a broad tip. They can also have wide or slim blades; some may look like the katana.

The katana is known for its curved, slim blade. However, it can have different shapes, known as the zukuri, and always keeps its curve. 

Both swords can feature a groove (bohi in Japanese, dao cao in Chinese) to make them weigh less. Chinese swords are made to be flexible at the spine and harder at the edge, while Japanese swords are clay-tempered, giving them a distinctive hamon line. 

Hilt

Main Cutting Dao by Paul Chen Hanwei Sword with Scabbard
“Cutting Dao Martial Artist” with a historically accurate Ming-Dynasty saber design (Check Product)

The Chinese dao swords can be used with one or two hands. The handle is often curved or narrowed on the side opposite the blade and has a wooden core. The core sits on the sword’s full tang and is wrapped with leather or cord for a tight grip. 

Most dao swords have a disc-shaped guard known as dao hushou, made of metal. The guard is shallow inside, making the sword easier to sheath and offering protection. Dao swords also have a tassel or lanyard near the end of the handle, which can be wrapped around the user’s hand. 

The katana has a handle, a tsuka, designed for two hands. It is wrapped in cotton, leather, or silk in a special design called tsuka-maki. The katana’s handguard, the tsuba, is round and often features artistic designs. The blade’s tang is inscribed with the maker’s signature, a mei. 

The katana and dao swords have a special part called the habaki in Japanese or the tunkou in Chinese. This helps secure the hilt fittings securely and acts as a connector for the scabbard.

Scabbard

Main Samurai Sword Clay Tempered Katana Model 14 Sword with scabbard
“Ronin Katana Model #14” featuring a lacquered and shiny scabbard and a cotton cord (Check Product)

The Chinese dao sword is worn on the left side, with the edge facing down inside the sheath, known as daoqiao. 

Beginning in the Tang Dynasty and influenced by Persian swords, Chinese swords came with a strap or belt called a dao shu liang. This helped to carry the sword more comfortably as it hung from the belt.  

The Japanese katana scabbard is called a saya, and it is carried on the left side with the sharp edge facing up, making it easier to draw in a tight space.

The sheathed katana has a cord called a sageo, which wraps around the user’s waist. It is worn inside the obi belt next to a smaller sword, forming a pair known as daisho.

Size and Weight

Main Miao Dao by Dragon King Sword with scabbard
“Dragon King Miao Dao” with a 57-inch (144 cm) design allows reach advantage (Check Product)

The dao sword can vary in size based on design and purpose. One-handed sabers are usually between 23.6 and 39.3 inches (60 to 100 cm) long. Two-handed dao swords can be much larger, up to 59 inches (150 cm) long.

The weight of dao sabers used by calvary and slicing ranges between 1.7 and 2.6 (0.8 to 1.2 kg). Daos designed for powerful chopping and slashing can weigh between 2.2 and 3.3 lbs (1 to 1.5 kg).

The typical length of a samurai katana sword is about 39 inches (99 cm), though there are bigger versions like the o-katana, which can be about 47 inches (120 cm) long. Katana swords usually weigh between 2.4 to 2.9 lbs (1.1 to 1.3 kg).

Some Chinese dao swords look like the Japanese katanas but are much larger. 

Historical Significance

Influence Asia
Japanese scholars and missions sent to Tang China, bringing with them the inspiration for a new sword shape – Credits: About Japan

The Chinese dao, known for its straight, single-edged blade, started during the Han Dynasty (2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE). It was easier to create and use than the jian sword, which led to its popularity.  

By the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th century CE), the dao was essential in battle and known as the “general of weapons.” At the same time, the jian turned into a symbol for nobility, ceremonies, and training. The dao’s design from this era, known as the tang dao, was very influential in East Asian sword crafting and affected Japanese sword styles. 

Japan learned much from China about religion, culture, and sword-making during the Tang Dynasty through 16 successful missions. After the dynasty, Japanese smiths created new types of swords, including the tachi.

Dao swords began featuring a light curve during the Song Dynasty (10th-13th century), which became more pronounced after the Mongol invasion and in the Yuan Dynasty (13th-14th century), leading to the curved-blade dao saber.

During Japan’s Muromachi Period (1338-1537), after the Mongol invasion, the need for foot soldiers and close combat made the katana, a new type of sword, replace the calvary’s tachi. This led to the katana becoming the iconic samurai sword. 

This change influenced Chinese swordsmiths, who created the wodao, or “Japanese Swords,” during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) due to interactions with Japanese pirates and trade. During this time, over 125,000 Japanese swords were brought to China.  

During the Edo Period (17th-19th century), the katana became a symbol of the samurai and nobility. During the Qing Dynasty (17th-20th century), the dao evolved to be used in fights without armor. 

Today, the katana is celebrated in Japan and worldwide and used in martial arts like kendo and Iaido. The dao is practiced in Chinese martial arts, mainly for entertainment, such as wushu and kung fu dances.

Summary
The dao, originating during China’s Han Dynasty, replaced the jian sword by the Tany Dynasty. Its design, known as the tan dao, influenced Japanese sword making, leading to swords like the katana during the Muromachi period. The katana became a cultural and artistic symbol, while the dao, used in warfare, evolved in design over time. 

Combat Preference

Dao vs Katana Combat Preference
Chinese Ming-dynasty dao warrior fighting a wokou pirate with a katana-like blade

Chinese dao swords are versatile in combat and designed for slashing rather than thrusting, even those with a straight blade like the tang dao.  

Some, like the dadao or broadsword, were made for strong chopping. Others, like the guan dao, are attached to long poles and used as polearms. 

Lighter dao sabers like the liuyedao and niuwedao were great for quick slicing and slashing, whether on horseback or on foot. Swords like the chang dao or miao dao, which resemble Japanese swords, are used like the katana. 

The Japanese katana sword was a versatile, single-blade sword and was often a backup but also used as a main weapon. Samurai mainly used it for slashing while on foot, a shift from the earlier tachi. During the Edo Period, it was used more for dueling and self-defense. 

Japanese samurai used the katana mostly as a slashing weapon and on foot, unlike the previous tachi sword. While a battlefield weapon for a period, its main combat use was for dueling and self-defense, especially in the peaceful Edo Period.

The dao, however, was a key cavalry sword and a common infantry weapon, used with a shield or later with a firearm. Its slightly curved blade was especially effective against unarmored foes. 

Dao vs. Katana
The dao saber, with its various designs, was the main Chinese sword for warfare and combat. It could serve as either a main or backup weapon. The Japanese katana, known for its consistency in design, was mainly a secondary weapon for the samurai, used mostly for self-defense and dueling, especially during the Edo Period. 
Sources Cited
  1. Sinclaire, C. (2018, January 30). Samurai Swords – A Collector’s Guide. Tuttle Publishing.
  2. Kapp, L., Kapp, H., & Yoshihara, Y. (1987, January 1). The Craft of the Japanese Sword. Kodansha International.
  3. Walker, B. L. (2015, February 26). A Concise History of Japan. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Sesko, M. (2014, September 30). Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords.
  5. Lorge, P. A. (2011, December 5). Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century.
  6. Sprague, M. (2013, June 25). Chinese Swords: The Evolution and Use of the Jian and Dao.
  7. Rossabi, M. (2021, February 25). A History of China. John Wiley & Sons. 
  8. Vogel, E. F. (2019, July 30). China and Japan. Harvard University Press.
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